I have had the privilege to Skype with Benjamin and personally hear his rich passion for the Gospel in daily life and the performance/study of music. Below is a submission he shared with me on “Calvinism versus Arminianism,” what he considers “a very relevant issue for collegiate Christian circles.” Do you concur? Do you have stories to share regarding how a ministry in which you’re involved with remained “one” even with Calvinism versus Arminianism an open topic for conversation? As you may have guessed with my studies at Grove City, Geneva, and Evangelical, the topic has regularly been a part of my educational campus life. I appreciate Benjamin’s invitation to healthy dialogue.~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Editor.
One of the most typically and sadly divisive discussions to surface in college Christian fellowships and other heterogeneous Christian circles is the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. It is often rife with misconceptions, miscommunications, mistrust, and misplaced allegiances.
I am not interested in arguing for one label or the other. But neither will I posit (as many do) that truth is to be found somewhere in a motley synthesis of the two systems, which inevitably proves inconsistent. Rather, I intend simply to walk through the five points that broadly outline each system, trying to understand the position of each camp in light of Scripture, in order to foster unity in the gospel and a productive discussion of differences.
1). “Total Depravity”: a point of agreement
Calvinists and Arminians agree on this one: the totality of man’s faculties are so depraved and impaired by the fall that his will is enslaved by sin, warped away from God, and dead toward Him. Both agree that without God’s intervening grace, man would never choose God.
Where the Calvinist and Arminian systems differ is on the effect this intervening grace is believed to have.
2). “Irresistible Grace” vs. “Resistible Grace”
Calvinists believe God’s grace has a sovereignly determined effect: God gives us a new heart that freely chooses Him in faith. The outcome is certain. This is what Calvinists mean by “irresistible grace.” By contrast, Arminians believe that God’s grace is not determinate: it gives us the ability to choose or reject Christ freely, but the outcome is not guaranteed. This is the “resistible grace” of Arminianism.
A simple consideration may give clarity. A free soul’s decision is only uncertain to the extent that the two options are comparable. If you were offered a choice between a Rembrandt and a cigarette butt, would the outcome be uncertain? When it comes to accepting or rejecting Christ, we’re talking about a choice in which the options are infinitely more extreme. If the sin-enslaved soul is theoretically able to choose Jesus but is certain not to, how much more would the truly free soul be theoretically able to embrace the horror of separation from God but shiver at the travesty of the very thought?
In other words, a free soul will freely choose God. Freedom is not opposed to the certainty of our choosing God—rather, it’s precisely what guarantees it! We are certain to freely embrace God to the extent that we are truly free. Conversely, it is only impairment or the coercion of evil that could account for someone not choosing God. Praise God that Jesus has come to give sight to the blind and to set the captives free! And the glorious promise is that if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
3). “Conditional Election” vs. “Unconditional Election”
Here there is room for confusion. If the Arminian emphasis on “conditional election” is used to refer to God’s choosing (electing) to justify, adopt, sanctify and glorify those and only those who have faith in Him, then it is a premise that any Calvinist would agree is purely Biblical. Neither Calvinists nor Arminians believe that you can be justified, adopted, etc. without faith in Christ.
But if it is true that our faith itself is an uncoerced but guaranteed result of the eye-opening, chain-breaking, new-life-giving grace of God, then whatever label we subscribe to, we must agree that the initial grace that brings us to the point of faith cannot be conditioned upon anything in us. And indeed I think the Bible is clear that it is not. This is what Calvinists mean by “unconditional election.”
4). “Unlimited Atonement” vs. “Limited Atonement”
To understand this point, we have to first recognize that “unlimited atonement” and “limited atonement” do not necessarily suggest contradictory ideas: they refer to different aspects of the atonement upon which both Calvinists and Arminians would agree.
When Arminians speak of “unlimited atonement,” they are referring to the unlimited availability of the atonement: the invitation is open to all. Any traditional Calvinist would agree. But Arminians also believe that the only ones who are actually saved are the ones who put their trust in Christ. But that is exactly what is meant when Calvinists speak of “limited atonement”—they are referencing its actual extent, not its availability.
5). Once you’re saved, can you fall away from salvation?
Calvinists and some Arminians claim that once you’re saved, you’re always saved. Other Arminians claim that you can fall away and lose your salvation. Which is it?
Scripture is soberly clear that one can have sincere faith and experience new life but yet fall away permanently to destruction. We all should agree there. But there’s a further consideration: was such a person ever truly saved to begin with?
Calvinists and Arminians agree that the term “salvation” refers to being saved from the wrath of God at the Judgment and being given eternal life. But someone who falls away permanently, being outside Christ, tragically does not escape God’s wrath at the Judgment; and if whatever new life this person experienced didn’t last forever, then by very definition it couldn’t have been eternal life. In this light, it seems that such a person can’t be said ever to have been “saved” in any meaningful sense, and thus they couldn’t be said to lose a salvation they never had.
So again, both sides make valid points. The one warns of the very real danger of backsliding. But those who claim “once saved, always saved” correctly (if somewhat counter-intuitively) articulate the premise that true salvation is that which, by the grace and providence of God alone, endures to the end.
But we must be careful: the moment we start worrying about whether our faith will endure, we are putting our faith in faith rather than in the God who sustains us and calls us not to comprehend His ways but simply to trust Him step by step, believing that He is faithful.
About the author:
Benjamin Shute is Visiting Assistant Professor of Violin at Dickinson College. A native of Wilmington, Delaware, he studied at the New England Conservatory (Boston) and the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg (Germany). He enjoys sharing the echoes of the gospel in music in a variety of settings, performing frequently as recitalist and chamber musician, serving periodically as concertmaster of the Boston Chamber Orchestra, and teaching at the Csehy Summer School of Music and other festivals in Europe and Asia. He is a regular contributor to the Center for Gospel Culture.